Into the known: A journey into white history making

Serendipity is a funny thing. Or is it coincidence?


I started reading Slyvia Wynter’s essay ‘Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom’ almost a month before going to ‘Into the Unknown: A Journey Into Science Fiction’ at the Barbican. I read it intermittently, whenever I wasn’t listening to a podcast. A week before going to the Barbican I went with a friend to the Serpentine Gallery to see Arthur Jafa’s ‘A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions’ (a fantastically engaging show that I recommend to Black people). At the exhibition is a small book of 4 essays from Fred Moten, Tina M. Campt, John Akomfrah and Ernest Hardy. Fred Moten’s essay, ‘Black Topological Existence’ draws a lot of Slyvia Wynter’s essay, writing about a world ending study, about the systems of relations we are coerced to produce and reproduce. I haven’t finished Moten’s essay yet, I felt I had to finish Wynter’s first and so I began to spend most of my free time reading it. I finished it at 4am on Thursday morning, having reached a point in the text where I couldn’t stop reading, I needed to know the rest of the Argument and what hopes Wynter had in writing it.


The Argument is Wynter’s sketching out of the foundations of modern systems of knowing and relation, namely the answers dominant knowledge producers have for the question ‘who and what are we/am I?’ She charts the ways ‘human’ has been defined in Europe from ancient times to present, the catalysts and reasons for the changes that occur: from the conception of human as subject to divine, heavenly, supernatural movement, to ‘Man’: human subject to evolution, i.e. nature, capable of reason. She argues that the natural and physical sciences as we know them came about due to this transformation in thinking about one/ourselves: nature itself became ‘knowable’ by everyday men, and not simply the clergy, not the pre-ordained. She elaborates how every transformation was not complete, and built on the concepts available in previous ways of defining ‘human’, and so draws an ancestral link between concepts like the unclean status of man, the earth, and nature as opposed to the divine, pure heavens of the medieval era, to the unclean jobless; the illegal migrant, unclean, close-to-animal-status non white races as opposed to the privileged, logical, reasonable, middle class, beautiful white man of the contemporary period. Slyvia Wynter’s Argument links the meaning of what it means to be human and to be alive, the knowing of oneself to the upholding of a hierarchy of matter (a hierarchy inherited from the Medival European church), now known as the evolutionary chain of being, with the exceptional, self-aware form of life known as ‘homo sapiens’ at the top of other non-sentient life forms. In this hierarchy, white Europeans are the exemplar of homo sapiens, the true humans, Man, while Black people,the indigenous people of sub-Sahran Africa and its Disapora, Melanesia and Australia are least human, closer to apes. For Wynter, even capitalism functions to preserve this way of knowing the world, the dispossession and enslavement of the peoples of the New World, while birthing capitalism, were also essential to keeping European’s understanding of being human intact; the enforced poverty of non-white, non-Christian, non-European peoples serves to affirm the vision of human as economically privileged and capable of reason (hence the economic privilege) and free.


It is with this background of thoughts – of European ideas about consciousness, reason, nature, humanity and the need to sustain such ideas at all costs (resulting in the incredible aggression expressed towards the peoples of the New World and non-European, non-white people) – that I went to the Barbican. I knew what level of whiteness I would be encountering, after all, science fiction is dominated by white male writers and whiteness tends not to see its own overrepresentation. In fact, most genres and canons produced in the West are dominated by White people, even unexpected genres like ‘African-American Studies’. I was prepared for to see the work of a lot of white people, I would not have been surprised if I didn’t see a single text by a PoC, and I expected to witness the inability of whiteness to see itself. I got that and more.


The main exhibit is in the ‘Curve’, essentially a long, narrow curved room. The priming text at the beginning of the exhibition tells of the origins of science fiction: ‘in the imaginative potential of unexplored lands and undiscovered people’; in marvelous lands in lost worlds, in the ‘dark corners of the earth, forbidden valleys or towards the poles.’ The origins are un-dated but I would wager that it was during the late 15th and early 16th century where the ideas that now form the bedrock of European science fiction, modern systems of relations bloomed. It is, after all, during this time that the same impulse drove cartographers, merchants, royalty to ‘discover’ and subsequently conquer most of the ‘New World’, dispossess and/or enslaved these previously ‘undiscovered’ people. These explorations, according to Wynter, were expressions of the ‘self-transformation’ of the medieval definition of the human, allowing the theology of the Church, which previously defines the world as only made up of the Old World, the rest of the world being uninhabitable, to be displaced by the beginnings of a scientific, reasoned and logically confirmed thesis of being human. Europe, of course, remained the designated piece of land chosen by God/in proximity of the Divine while the newly discovered New World was farther from God, more impure and base, filled with base, unnatural people. The impulse to discover was part of a larger attempt by Europeans to free themselves from God, to prove themselves as separate from other divinely created life because of reason and self-determination. This impulse was put into practice not only by merchants and royalty seeking new land and resources to make huge profits but also lay persons, non-clergy Christians, sons of nobility: land back home was becoming more scarce as the Commons were being ‘privatised’. The New World and its exploration guaranteed the future for many Europeans and it paved the way for the Copernican Revolution, that act which removed Earth from the center of the universe, displacing the Church’s divinely given knowledge.


That this impulse was an imperialist one, encouraged and disseminated to justify imperialism is not mentioned in the priming text and is only mentioned at the middle of the exhibition. This acknowledgment is small, brief, confined to a small book displaying works like Octavia Butler’s Xenogensis and Nnedi Okorafoh’s Binti. That imperialism and colonialism and their justifications sparked off the subject of the exhibition is made into a small point. This acknowledgment does not extend to science fiction of today, which in many cases is similarly imperialist, concerned with the ‘colonisation’ of new planets and space; depicting other forms of life as primitive, lesser; with imagining extensive human (white) empires that flourish in far-flung galaxies. This impulse is confined almost entirely to the past.


Going past the priming text, there is a screen on which you can read about very early, short science fiction stories that take place in the New World and are centered around cannibalism (even though. The spectacular nature of the natives and their cultures, or rather aspects of their culture that 16th century Europe found to be animalistic and against nature, is another problematic aspect of early science fiction that is not acknowledged. Neither are the numerous depictions of sentient apes in the exhibit itself, nor the proliferation of sentient, aggressive simians in science fiction as a whole (all the way up to present day science fiction).


Slyvia Wynter links the simianisation of Africans, Black Africans not only to the justification of the slave trade, but to that great ‘Chain of Being’, the hierarchy of matter mentioned earlier, stemming from Darwin’s Theory of Evolution; to representations of sin, impurity, (hyper)sexuality and evil in the Medieval Church. These are both systems of definition of the ‘human’ where Black people, Africans were the missing link between apes and true human, i.e. white, male, economically privileged, Christian Europeans who are capable of reason. During this birth of science fiction, Black African slaves, and subsequently Sub-Saharan ‘Bantu’ featured Africans and the Diaspora were close to the apes through divine will, and during the 18-19th century and beyond, the supposed proximity of Black people to Simians would be written as an evolutionary, natural fact.


Cannibalism and the lesser evolved status of some humans (as proven by their darkness and physical features) served to justify and enable the dispossession and enslavement of New World people, not only to those with the power to enact such things but also lay persons privileged enough to be able to read, as well as form a kinship between Europeans. The spectacularization and ‘othering’ of cannibalism in science fiction are interesting because many European nobles, intellectuals and clergy consumed human parts as medicine and aphrodisiacs. This at the same time that philosophers, theologists, and other intellectuals proposed that the cannibalism(s) of the Americas was just caused to enslave and dispossess.


It would have been incredibly interesting to have gone to an exhibition that sought to consciously explore the consequences of such Eurocentric impulses, that interpreted the canon of science fiction through an anti-racist, anti-imperialist, feminist lens. Instead, it seems the curator(s) of the exhibition made the acknowledgment of these impulses as a side note, something not of great importance to comprehending the genre. This is, in effect normalises these negative aspects of science fiction; they’re not that bad. The exhibition reproduces hegemonic ways of relating to bodies of knowledge and concepts. Science fiction apparently cannot be problematised, even when there is a problem, that problem is vastly diminished in its importance and urgency. You can accept the problematic aspects of science fiction with an ‘oh well’.


There is a sense of othering that takes place walking through the exhibition: histories like mine are not the ones catered to in this exhibition after all my history is part of the history of ‘discovered’ peoples. This exhibition seemed to be for the descendants of the discoverers, those whose course in life is shaped by the fact that their ascendants directly benefited from the ‘discovery’ of my people and other New World peoples, those who still benefit from this ‘discovery’ (this is in part what we call whiteness). Histories like mine are the history of descending from those strange, wild, mind-boggling natives that science fiction sought to write about, transforming my ancestors into a sort of consumable. It is important when thinking of imaginative practices like science fiction about who did/does the discovering and who/what is being discovered. When the leaflet of this exhibitions uses pronouns like ‘us’ and ‘our’, I know it is not referring to the ‘discovered’ people. If science fiction is about Europe discovering, for me then science fiction – white European science fiction – is also about the enabling, justification, and imagining of imperialism, colonialism and the institution of race (which ultimately justified the violently enforced dominance of Europe and white people).

At the end of the ‘Curve’ section of the exhibit are media pods. There are games here that visitors are invited to play, as well as small interactive music stations where one can learn about the sci-fi impulses of P-Funk (another small Black space in the midst of whiteness). One of the games is ‘Darwinia’. The aim of the game is to help a Dr. Sepulveda save the AI digital life forms he created, forms of life that grow and evolve, from a computer virus. I was introduced to another Sepulveda reading Slyvia Wynter. Juan Gines de Sepulveda was a Spanish Renaissance philosopher and theologian, he defended the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, the dispossession and enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the Americas on the basis that they were acting against the laws of nature, i.e. practicing cannibalism and human sacrifice. So it’s a little funny that we begin with explicit mentions of the wonder-inducing nature of cannibalism (to be specific, non-European cannibalism) and end with thin, wispy connections to the inhumanity of cannibalism that justified imperial, white conquest, in a game about impurity (the virus), cultivating particular forms of life, overseeing the process of evolution, and playing God. The imperialism, Eurocentrism, and whiteness of the exhibition make themselves known explicitly and through subtle connections and gestures towards actual historical events.


This, I’m sure, is generally how an exhibit of Western canons of genres go: either complete unacknowledgement or incredibly insufficient acknowledgments of the horrific history of the West and almost every field of knowledge production within it. What we get is a constant production of a white history, a white way of knowing the world, a white answer to what it means to be human in this day and age, a white methodology for imagining the future.


We must be aware of the way in which whiteness imagines itself in(to) the future, writes its own imaginings of the future, and how it takes stock of this imagination. Science fiction, going by this exhibition, is largely white imperialist fiction, and so justification. White science fictions seems unable to imagine beyond itself and the present, we see this in the countless depictions of violent encounters with alien races (which are essentially depictions of the ‘discovery’ of the New World but with White Europeans being the discovered people and aliens the discoverers), and ‘colonisation’ of new planets. It serves the interest of the power and profit seeking, those who seek to know in order to conquer. The leaflet of the exhibition even says ‘science fiction fills in the blanks of the maps’, a classic imperialist cartographic impulse. Science fiction unveils ‘hidden dimensions’ which are quickly colonised, made to produce intellectually, culturally transformative value for the West, and this potential is exhausted and depleted, colonised more practically, for the extraction of material goods.


There should have been a larger consistent engagement with nonwhite science fiction. Besides the hermetic acknowledgment of the imperialist nature of white, European science fiction there is a small corner where visitors can watch two episodes of Soda_Jerk’s (an art collective made up of two white women) Astro Black, a humorous collage of sci-fi film and television, the landing of the moon and Sun Ra that explores Afro-futurist themes. Above this are clips of films about alien encounters, such as Fantastic Planet and Sun Ra’s Space is the Place. I called this corner the Black corner. These serve to construct an image of the exhibition as ‘progressive’, ‘diverse’, ‘intersectional’, ‘aware’, when the exhibition is anything but. What would this exhibition have been like if it had attempted to construct a science fiction canon that is aware of the important ethical considerations one must have when thinking of colonising distant planet; if it had centred many non-European aesthetics and future imaginings; if it had actually grappled with the consequences of white European science fiction; if it had had the aim of unsettling notions of Europe and the future?


Further Reading

Slyvia Wynter – Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation

James R. Akerman – The Imperial Map: Cartography and the Mastery of Empire

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